Elon Musk believes that “machines that build the machines” are ultimately more important than whatever it is you’re manufacturing. In his own work with Tesla and SpaceX, it’s clear why Musk says this: He uses less expensive and more scalable processes to build the parts for spacecrafts and cars.
That weird Cybertruck we love to hate or hate to love? It looks like that because it would break the machines that make it, otherwise. Because it uses 30X cold-rolled steel, rather than stamped aluminum or steel, it’s not possible to stamp this kind of material. So instead, it looks all boxy instead of curvy.
Reason Cybertruck is so planar is that you can’t stamp ultra-hard 30X steel, because it breaks the stamping press
But in the near future, a new type of manufacturing could theoretically produce a Cybertruck of pretty much any shape. This new process, as outlined in a report from earlier this year by the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, is called metamorphic manufacturing, or robotic blacksmithing.
Right after World War II, computers were used to control manufacturing processes for the first time. While these old-school computers had way less computing power than even an iPad or a Raspberry Pi, according to Glenn Daehn, a professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State University, it allowed manufacturers to control industrial machines much more efficiently. This became known as computer numerical controlled manufacturing, or CNC for short.
Daehn, who is also team lead for the new study on robotic blacksmithing, said in a video that CNC machining was the first type of digital manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and 3D printing was the second wave. The third wave is what he calls “metamorphic manufacturing,” a process that borrows from both the world of blacksmiths and robotics, which can use sensors to evaluate the shape and microstructure of each part, while adding heat through lasers or shaping pieces with force from its own arms.
This process will likely supersede current technologies, including additive manufacturing and CNC machining, Daehn said. That’s partly because the process is sustainable, using standard metals with nothing cut away because it can create goods with higher properties, and partly because machines can work 24/7.
“The idea is rather than adding or subtracting we’re changing the shape or we’re changing the properties, that’s why we call it metamorphic manufacturing,” Daehn said.
The process will use plasticine, basically children’s modeling clay, as a hot metal surrogate. Daehn says its key to use open-die forging, which basically means you can create a new object through incremental changes—that is, rotate, shape, repeat.
Imagine you have some material that looks like a spherical ball, but you want it to be a square. A robot with two plates attached to an arm—one at the bottom, one at the top—can squeeze the sphere into an object that protrudes at the sides and is flat at the top and bottom. If it’s rotated and then squeezed again, you’ll eventually end up with a cube-shaped piece.
One of the great advantages of metamorphic manufacturing is its ability to closely tailor materials just like a blacksmith might. So, for instance, if you have a steel part that’s really stubborn and will crack if stamped—or else break the stamp itself–the robot working on the piece can actually reheat the part to make it more malleable.
Enter Cybertruck, which is built with a custom material designed by Tesla—30X cold-rolled steel. While we don’t know the secret formula that goes into this unique blend of steel alloys, we do know that the basic tenets of robotic blacksmithing include processes that can produce complexly shaped products. So, for example, the warehouse of the future will have robots that can use lasers to reheat a segment of a piece of steel, which may open the door to small changes on a larger hunk of metal, like curving the edges on segments of a certain boxy, (nearly) bullet-proof vehicle.
According to the new study on metamorphic manufacturing, this creates an unparallelled ability to control both the geometry and local properties of a part.
“Similar to additive manufacturing, metamorphic manufacturing can produce highly complex shapes which are difficult or expensive to CNC machine or die-form,” the authors wrote. “However, unlike additive manufacturing, [metamorphic manufacturing] can be utilized to fabricate these complex shapes out of a single piece of material by incrementally deforming, as opposed to building, layers upon one another.”
In turn, huge, monolithic structures could be produced at once, rather than through joining multiple pieces as in welding or brazing. That’s a pretty big deal, because joints are inherently weak spots.
Still, this is all a theoretical framework, and the study is mostly meant to urge scientists and engineers to move forward in creating processes that will eventually enable this new type of manufacturing. There’s no timeline yet on when the infant manufacturing process will hit our warehouses in real life, but the researchers behind the report are working to build more awareness.
Source: The Conversation